What Everyone Should Know About Wikipedia

Policies

Wikipedia has a lot of rules. And if you don’t know them, you’ll have great difficulty adhering to them.

As a Wikipedia consultant, I encounter the following conflict every day: Everyone wants a Wikipedia page for themselves, their C.E.O., or their organization, yet no one knows what it takes to create one.

Indeed, half my job consists of counseling clients on what’s possible and what’s not. In that spirit, I’ve developed a checklist for those considering a plunge down the rabbit hole.

Notability

To qualify for a Wikipedia article, you need to demonstrate what Wikipedia calls “notability.” That is, you need to develop a case, using only sources that Wikipedia recognizes, explaining why you warrant inclusion in a global encyclopedia.

If this sounds offensive, you’re right: Wikipedia’s requirements are exacting, especially for living people. For example, you can’t lean on a blue check mark on Instagram or a page on IMDb. Nor can you use the loftiness of your client list or endorsements by celebrities. Those credentials are impressive, but the Powers That Be have decided they’re “unreliable.”

What you need — Wikipedia’s gold standard — is media coverage that meets a variety of painstaking criteria:

Criterion #1: The Coverage Comes From a Media Outlet

The coverage you cite should come from the news media. That rules out marketing material such as a news release, your website, or even your bio from a speaker’s bureau. What you want is coverage in newspapers, magazines, television shows, radio shows, books — this is Wikipedia’s strike zone.

What about other forms of media, like blogs, podcasts, and e-newsletters? Do these not count? In general, no. While these platforms are part of the media ecosystem, they’re rarely high-profile enough. (That’s criterion #3 — the news outlet must itself be notable.)

Criterion #2: The Outlet Is Independent

The media outlet should be completely independent from you. This criterion rules out anything you publish yourself. (Sorry, Kindle Direct Publishing authors.)

It also rules out a variety of content you might think is perfectly kosher. For example, I used to volunteer for the Washington, D.C., chapter of the American Marketing Association. In return, they profiled me in an article that appeared on their website. Independent, this is not.

Here’s another scenario: Let’s say you work at, or are a member of, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. During your association, you’re featured on FreeEnterprise.com. Unfortunately, you can’t use that source, since this site is funded by the Chamber.

One more caveat: The article can’t be “sponsored.” That’s a fancy term for an “advertorial,” whereby you pay a publisher to run an article that looks like it was written by them but was actually financed and approved by you, the sponsor.

Even though many mainstream outlets have availed themselves of this lucrative revenue stream, the resulting content is not held to the same standards as articles from the newsroom. (Just ask the Atlantic, which was famously forced to rescind its puff piece on Scientology, or Forbes, whose contributor network was used by Jeffrey Epstein to whitewash his reputation.)

Criterion #3: The Outlet Is Notable

The outlet should itself be notable. So, a local or trade publication (think: A.R.L.now or P.R. Daily) is less helpful than a regional or national one (think: the Star Ledger or C.N.N.).

Put another way: The outlet should be part of what’s known as the mainstream media.

What counts as “mainstream”? That’s somewhat of a gray area. As a rule of thumb, the outlet should employ editors and issue corrections when it makes a mistake. Yet the devil’s in the masthead.

Consider the well-known website Medium. On one hand, much of the material here is self-published, which means it fails criterion #2 (independence). On the other hand, sections of Medium, like OneZero, operate with full-time editors and reporters.

To wit: While you can cite onezero.medium.com, you can’t cite medium.com.

Why Media Coverage Matters

Is this splitting hairs? Here’s the view from Wikipedia: To be covered in the media, you must convince a reporter that you’re important or interesting. What’s more, your words aren’t just printed verbatim; they’re subjected to a review process that, traditionally, includes editors, lawyers, and fact checkers.

All three functions have their roles: Editors vet both the quality of your work and conflicts of interest; lawyers look for libel; and fact checkers scrutinize your claims. By Wikipedia’s lights, the latter are especially important; as a copyeditor for the New York Times recently observed, “Doctors bury their mistakes. Lawyers lock theirs away. But reporters print theirs for the whole damn world to see.”

While media coverage may be a flawed form of validation, it’s the least flawed one we have. Indeed, Wikipedia worthiness has proven to be such an equitable benchmark that social-media companies may soon rely on it in deciding whether a user warrants one of those coveted verification badges.

Criterion #4: The Coverage Focuses on You

You need coverage that profiles you, rather than merely mentioning you. In other words: Being quoted once or twice in an article is not particularly helpful. Being quoted extensively or interviewed is better, but still not quite sufficient. What you’re looking for is coverage where you’re the focus.

Criterion #5: The Coverage Is Online

Once you identify something that meets the foregoing criteria, you then need to track down the original link. Put simply, if a document doesn’t appear online — so that others can access and verify it firsthand — then you can’t cite it. This is part of Wikipedia’s ban on original research; every claim you make must be meticulously footnoted.

Criterion #6: Your Coverage Is Sustained

Finally, you need to demonstrate that your media coverage isn’t just significant; it’s also sustained. For example, if all your clips come from the past three months, then Wikipedia probably considers you to be “notable for only one event.” In such cases, your best bet is not to create a new page, but to pursue inclusion in an existing one.

Alternative Coverage

Whenever a prospective client contacts me, my first ask is for half a dozen links that satisfy the above criteria. (While six isn’t a magic number, it’s a good test of notability.) In my initial analysis, I consider everything from the prominence of the publication (#2) to its independence (#3), from the focus of each article (#4) to its date (#6).

Yet if you struggle to round up enough material, don’t despair. In certain cases, you can supplement your lack of notability with alternative forms of coverage. Here are a few examples:

► Awards you’ve won.
► Op-eds you’ve written.
► Conferences you’ve keynoted.
► Papers you’ve published in peer-reviewed journals.

The bottom line: The all-important question of notability is sometimes a judgment call.

Ignorance Is No Excuse

Wikipedia is a maze of policies and guidelines. (Yes, those are two separate things.) These rules can be opaque, unforgiving, and even contradictory. (One of Wikipedia’s “five pillars” is, “Wikipedia has no firm rules.”)

From one perspective, these walls safeguard the encyclopedia’s integrity and are a big reason the site ranks so highly in Google. From another perspective, Wikipedia’s reputation for being inhospitable to the uninitiated is well-deserved; there are so many dos and don’ts that it’s easy for a neophyte to unwittingly commit a cardinal sin.

Want to avoid that fate? Then, as with anything technical, make sure you read the manual. Just as the cop who stopped you doesn’t care that you swear you didn’t see the “Stop” sign, so Wikipedia editors don’t care that you were “only” doing what you saw on another page.

Wikipedians have heard that rationalization before, and they don’t look kindly on violations. Ignorance of the wiki way is no excuse. And now you won’t need one.

The 6 Rules of Wikipedia Sourcing

1. Is the source a media outlet?
2. Does the outlet have an arms-length relationship to you?
3. Is the outlet high-profile?
4. Are you the focus of the article?
5. Is there a link?
6. Are your links spread out over several years?


Jonathan Rick helps individuals and organizations navigate Wikipedia.

A version of the above article appeared in the Content Marketing Institute blog on February 4, 2021.

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